TALL IN THE SADDLE: CLINT WALKER IN FORT DOBBS AND YELLOWSTONE KELLY

July 8, 2014

vlcsnap2011011111h43m38

In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer:  “It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest  in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.

Capture1

Kennedy wrote the stories for the Budd Boetticher-Rudolph Scott “Ranown cycle” of Westerns, in which the majority of violence is psychological. Fort Dobbs retains the spirit of those Boetticher films, a three-person battle of resentments between Walker, Brian Keith and Virginia Mayo. The ever-reliable Gordon Douglas keeps the focal points of the triangle shifting in the frame, and makes the dramatic Utah desert-scape constrict around its characters. The near wordless opener depicts Gar Davis (Clint Walker) storming into a house to kill a man offscreen. Douglas keeps the camera outside, the only indication of violence a broken window and the sound of a gunshot. Gar then gallops away from the posse forming to catch him, and dresses a corpse in his clothes to throw them off the scent. The desert is a repository of dead things, which is why Gar seems genuinely surprised to find a working farm out there, operated by Celia (Mayo) and her son Chad (Richard Eyer). Knowing the Comanche are on a push to drive white settlers out, he agrees to lead them to safety at the titular Fort Dobbs. Along the way Gar runs into Clett (Keith), a black market gun seller. They were old running buddies turned sour, with a history of distrust between them. Celia is led to believe Gar had killed her husband, while Clett has less than respectable designs on Celia. The whole miserable group troupes through the dirt with eyes implanted in the back of their heads. Douglas emphasizes the act of looking through POV shots through Gar’s eyes, as well as in a remarkable reaction shot from Mayo, gazing at a shirtless Gar as he cleans his gun. An unruly mix of lust, hatred and confusion flickers through her eyes. Walker is improbably good looking, but what makes him compelling is his unwavering sincerity. He delivers his lines as straight as his ramrod posture, without modulation or any kind of visible performance. With Clint, what you see is what you get, and that’s very reassuring, almost calming. He didn’t make enough films to develop a persona beyond this, like how Marion Morrison was able to workshop “John Wayne” in all those Republic B-Westerns, but what’s there is clear and true.

Clint00001

Wayne and John Ford were once attached to make Yellowstone Kelly. They passed, and it fell down the bureaucratic ladder to Douglas and Walker, who turned in a fine-grained epic on a budget. The studio was attracted to the story of Western trapper and Indian scout Luther Sage Kelly because of an advertisement in Variety. According to Susan Compo’s biography of Warren Oates, A Wild Life, an ad centered around Kelly ran for U.S. Savings Bonds in early 1956 with the tagline, “His calling card had claws on it.” WB registered the title Yellowstone Kelly in February of ’56. In Burt Kennedy’s script Kelly (Walker), along with his assistant Anse Harper (Edward Byrnes) get caught up in an inter-Sioux feud when they nurse a young Arapaho woman, Wahleeah (Andrea Martin), back to health. Both the Sioux chief (John Russell) and his young charge Sayapi (Ray Danton) wish to have Wahleeah as their wife. Kelly has to return her or he’ll lose access to Sioux land for his trapping. And when a power hungry army captain attempts to push the Sioux off their land, the love quadrangle turns into a war.

Clint00008

While the land in Fort Dobbs is a deathtrapin Yellowstone Kelly it’s fertile, lush, and Kelly’s sole source of sustenance. The Technicolor cinematography by Carl Guthrie is rich and viridescent – bursting with life. Walker’s red felt shirt emblazons itself on the screen. The plot is one of revivification, of Kelly’s soul and Wahleeah’s body. Kelly is a loner and a bit of a nihilist, becoming skeptical of all forms of society as he lives like a monk in the Western mountains. He finds peace in work and solitude, successfully repressing needs for human contact. It is the persistent annoyance of Harper asking for a job that begins to open Kelly up to human interaction, and it is the sarcastic, flirtatious Wahleeah who re-introduces him to the possibility of love. An intelligent matching of landscape, plot and theme, Yellowstone Kelly is top notch filmmaking.

motionpicturedai86unse_0205

For WB, it was yet another attempt to milk their stars while they were still cheap and on their initial contracts. The film is thick with TV stars. Edward Byrnes had made his name as “Kookie” on 77 Sunset Strip, while John Russell was the lawman on Lawman. Along with maximizing their low-money contract players, using TV actors was an attempt to lure back the crowds who had abandoned film for the antenna. In an August 1958 issue of Motion Picture News, ,future New York Times film critic Vincent Canby thought these small-screen names “may well bring out to theaters that part of the so-called ‘lost’ audience which has been lost because of TV Westerns and action dramas.” Using the full force of their marketing power, WB sent Walker and Byrnes on a nationwide in-person tour, calling the two leads “Warners’ traveling salesmen.” The tactic was successful, as by all accounts the film took in healthy profits. It didn’t turn into big screen superstardom for Walker, who remained a bankable TV actor and occasional film lead. But his Westerns for Gordon Douglas should secure Walker’s legacy as one of the genre’s finest strapping soft-spoken heroes.

WARNER ARCHIVE ROUNDUP: SMILIN’ THROUGH (1941) AND WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967)

January 17, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 11.25.36 AM

The Warner Archive continues to summon the ghosts of Hollywood past onto DVD, a bit of studio witchery we should all get behind. One of their most intriguing recent séance jobs is Frank Borzage’s Smilin’ Through(1941), a haunting WWI melodrama. Despite the mammoth Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set, there are still great stretches of Borzage’s career missing on home video (including essential titles like Man’s Castle (’33, hopefully a Sony MOD candidate) and Moonrise (’48), which is streaming on Netflix)). Smilin’ Through, though flawed, has moments of doomed romanticism that rival anything else in his work, with superimpositions establishing the intractable hold the past exerts on the present. A similar theme is lugubriously told in Welcome to Hard Times (’67), a Western in which old studio hand Burt Kennedy flails to channel A Fistful of Dollars on a low budget. Originally made-for-TV, MGM decided to release it into theaters before airing it on ABC, after which it disappeared. Featuring a spate of studio standbys, including Henry Fonda and Aldo Ray, it’s a fascinating failure in which MGM hires old studio craftsman to make a film that blatantly reaches for the youth market.

Frank Borzage had moved from Warner Brothers to MGM in 1937, starting with Big City, and continued there through Seven Sweethearts (’42, also on the Warner Archive), after which he became an independent contractor. The Warner Archive has released seven of these titles, all of which (excepting the well-regarded Mortal Storm (’40)) are due a second look. His stay at MGM was not a smooth one, with the usual studio interference and hijinks (producer Victor Saville famously claimed to have directed the majority of The Mortal Storm, an idea debunked by biographer Herve Dumont).  In January 1941 Borzage was removed from a re-telling of Billy the Kid after initial location shooting (he was replaced by David Miller), and was shifted to a Joan Crawford project, Bombay Nights, which never materialized. He didn’t sit idle long, with production on Smilin’ Through starting in early May.

The project was a rather moldy chestnut, based on a 1919 play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin, that had already been adapted twice for the screen, in 1922 (starring Norma Talmadge) and 1932 (with Norma Shearer). The scars of a 19th century love triangle are torn open on the eve of WWI, as Sir John Carteret (Brian Aherne) refuses to sanction the marriage of his adopted daughter Kathleen (Jeanette MacDonald) to Kenneth Wayne (Gene Raymond, MacDonald’s husband), whose father had destroyed Carteret’s marriage decades before. Borzage opens the film on the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, celebrating 60 years of her rule. The camera pans left to a church, with the ramrod figure of Aherne the only figure not gesticulating in a celebratory fashion. He sourly says, “I don’t like anniversaries”, the weight of the past present in each of his deliberate steps.

He is momentarily levered back into the present by the appearance of Kathleen, the niece of the woman he loved, Moonyean (also played by MacDonald). Entranced by her forthrightness (and resemblance to Moonyean), he temporarily eases his obsession with the past, which manifested in conversations with his ghostly deceased love, and embraces an attentive, active role as a father. Immediately upon making this decision, and loosing the grip of his memory, Borzage collapses time in a gorgeous, layered montage of spring flowers and children’s games. Kathleen’s childhood is compressed into thirty seconds, the narrative resuming once Carteret is once again ensnared by his loss of Moonyean.

The world of the film becomes a kind of necropolis, with Kathleen first meeting Kenneth in the abandoned mansion of his father, Jeremy. They dust off his decanter of wine, untouched since his death, and hold hands for the first time while staring up at his portrait, deeply ensconced in Carteret’s memories of his dead nemesis. Carteret is entombing his family in his obsessive memory, and can only free them by telling his story, and moving on. Borzage privileges this moment in an extended flashback of his doomed wedding day, an unburdening and a confessional, that ends with Carteret cradling Moonyean in a Pieta-like pose, allowing himself to mourn for the first time, instead of simply nursing his hatred. It ends on a transporting image, of a ghostly Carteret-Moonyean and a physical Kathleen-Kenneth passing in the night, going in different directions on time’s arrow, but both savoring the moment.

Please read Kent Jones’ wonderful career overview in Film Comment for a fuller view of Borzage’s career.

***

In 1967, MGM was trying to crank out genre films on a budget by making deals with television networks, while still reaping the box office rewards from theatrical release. Kerry Segrave wrote in Movies at Home that the studio had renegotiated its deal with ABC, allowing the final three of their six co-productions to be released theatrically before they hit the tube. These were Day of the Evil Gun (starring Glenn Ford and Arthur Kennedy, 1968), Hot Rods to Hell(with Dana Andrews, 1967) and Welcome to Hard Times (1967). Warner Archive has just released Hard Times in a handsomely remastered DVD, and is an artifact of a studio’s shfit to producing tele-films and catering to the burgeoning youth market. Director/writer Burt Kennedy, famous for scripting Budd Boetticher’s psychologically astute Ranown cycle of Westerns, had moved from helming TV shows to becoming a reliable worker on cheap genre films. Right before Hard Times, Kennedy cranked out Return of the Seven (1966), a sequel to The Magnificent Seven (1960), and afterward he made a couple of popular comic-Westerns with James Garner, Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971). Hard Times is the likely nadir of Kennedy’s work in this period, a slackly paced adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s first novel (Doctorow told the NY Times that the film was the “second worst movie ever made.” The worst? Swamp Fire (’46) starring Johnny Weissmuller).

The film concerns the Mayor and de facto Sheriff of the Western town of Hard Times, Will Blue (Henry Fonda), a dyed-in-the-wool cynic who only acts out of base self-interest. When a drunken hell-raiser (Aldo Ray, credited as “The Man From Bodie”), razes the town to the ground, Blue just watches from a distance, not willing to get involved. Blue and a local medicine show carny build up Hard Times again by turning it into a good-times destination for local miners. As business booms, Blue braces for the return of “The Man From Bodie”. The film opens with a bang, in a near-silent sequence that is an homage to (or straight rip of) the start of Rio Bravo. Instead of a drunken Dean Martin, it’s a buzzing Aldo Ray, who smashes a bottle in close-up, drinking from the shards that are left. Ray is framed to be a force of nature, presaged by a dramatic clap of thunder and causing  raging fires. Ray starts out as intimidating, but is reduced to cartoon villainy by this overdetermined symbolism, a hacky attempt to provide the stylish ultra-violence the young crowds desired, and were delivered in the Leone Spaghetti Westerns. Even the film’s cynicism seems half-baked, as Fonda’s brittle, passive exterior gives way to a conclusion of straining sentimentality. And opening sequence aside, the film is indifferently put together, despite the incredible rogues gallery of faces Kennedy had to work with. In addition to Fonda and Ray there is Warren Oates, Elisha Cook Jr., Lon Chaney Jr., Keenan Wynn and Royal Dano. As these weathered, instinctively expressive faces slide past the screen in this ill-conceived oater, it feels like a roll call at classical Hollywood’s funeral.